Newspapers as a House Fire -- Quick, Save the Important Stuff!

by Conor Friedersdorf

In Cato Unbound, Clay Shirky has a sharp take on the future of journalism, but I want to quibble with one of his conclusions (emphasis added):

The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.

This will not replace the older forms journalism, but then nothing else will either; both preservation and simple replacement are off the table. The change we’re living through isn’t an upgrade, it’s a upheaval, and it will be decades before anyone can really sort out the value of what’s been lost versus what’s been gained. In the meantime, the changes in self-assembling publics and new models of subsidy will drive journalistic experimentation in ways that surprise us all.

It may be decades before we're able to assess whether we're better off overall with whatever media model comes next. It is nevertheless prudent to look closely at the model we've got, and ask what about it we ought to deliberately preserve. As an example, I'd posit that my first employer, The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, does a service to every citizen of the cities it covers by insisting that its municipal beat reporters regularly review the campaign finance paperwork and financial disclosure forms filed by local officials. Were that newspaper to close, or drastically cut back on staff, it would be worthwhile for someone to complete that thankless, boring and important task, whether on a volunteer or paid basis.

Speaking more generally, I am against measures that calcify the current media landscape. Though The New York Times is an invaluable institution, I'd hate to see the federal government guarantee its existence in perpetuity. Still, I am cautious enough to be anxious anytime so many complex, age-old enterprises shrink, and even disappear, so quickly. Rather than ask how we can save newspapersmy own opinion is that we cannotI propose to investigate which functions, among the many they perform, matter to the health of the polities they serve. Small towns, suburbs and even major metropolitan regions are losing institutions that helped shape public life for generations. Waiting decades to assess what's been lost may sound practical, given the difficulty of making judgments amid this kind of upheaval, but that approach guarantees certain vital roles will go unfilled.